These Retailers are Carving a Niche With Personal Service and a Dose of Determination

This month, we’re highlighting women making notable moves in the shoe business as part of our “Strength of Women” series.

For a trio of independent retailers, physical retail still has a lot of power.

Industry newcomers Nicole Barber and Kimberly Schoon, with backgrounds in science, took a leap into the children’s shoe business with stores of their own, while Amanda Weiner, who wears a range of hats at her family’s shoe chain, learned the retail ropes at the age of 8.

When Barber, an orthopedic nurse, and her husband Ramon Rivera, an IT director, were looking for a new business opportunity to supplement their jobs, fate stepped in. Little Feet Shoes, a children’s store in Wesley Chapel, Fla., came up for sale in 2018 after its founder died.

The mother of three was already a long-time fan of the store, drawn to its customer service. Her middle daughter Sophia had been diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder and often struggled with her footwear, a problem solved by the store’s staff and kid-friendly products.

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Although Barber, 39, was new to the industry, her medical background proved an asset when it came to shoe fitting. “I had no idea about shoes, but as an orthopedic nurse I knew how important it was for kids to be properly fitted,” she said. Her husband, meanwhile, takes care of the back end of the business, a venture the two self-financed.

Connecting with customers also came naturally. “As a mom, I could relate to other moms, especially those with children with challenges,” she explained. “I know the struggles, so that makes it easier.”

The product side of the business proved more challenging. However, with the help of the store’s two sales associates, a female college student, and mother of three, both employees of the former owner, Barber got a crash course in buying. “I had to learn what customers liked,” she said, about fashion trends. “I also had good vendors, such as Tsukihoshi sales rep Leslie Harrington, who took me under their wing.”

As a nurse and business owner, Barber was also keenly aware of the challenges the store faced as the COVID-19 crisis hit. While she distanced herself from day-to-day operations as she continues her work at a local Tampa, Fla., hospital, her staff is available to serve customers.

For Kimberly Schoon, founder of One at a Time Step Kids, the recent pandemic turned her kids’ shoe business upside down. Having moved into a new 3,000-square-foot space in Decatur, Ga., just six weeks before the COVID-19 crisis exploded, her long-awaited growth plans were instantly put on hold.

Schoon had seized the chance to move to the new location, strategically situated near a children’s medical group, kids’ hair salon and kids’ bookstore. However, she still held the lease to her former store, sublet to a tenant who pulled out last minute as the pandemic unfolded, leaving Schoon to carry both rents while forced to close the door to her new store.

“I’m now paying $10,000 a month in rent for the two stores,” said Schoon, until she locates another tenant. “March, April and May are my busiest months. I was doing $40,000 per month last year and had projected a 30% increase this year.” Overall, the store grossed $375,000 in 2019.

Coupled with the unexpected financial burden, Schoon also lost her staff. Two employees, both high schoolers, resigned their positions, while another, a college student returned home. Her assistant manager, juggling work and motherhood, had also resigned. But the entrepreneur, accustomed to taking risks, didn’t buckle under the circumstances. Instead, she found a new assistant manager and reopened on May 2.

When Schoon, now 46, opened the store it was a career turnaround. The mother of two, the younger a special needs child, left her job as a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control in 2015 to pursue a shoe career after being unable to find footwear to fit her then infant daughter’s small-sized feet.

She launched the business with a leased department in a local running shoe store where her husband had shopped, developing an instant following. “Customers saw my own children wearing the shoes I sold there, so there was a confidence,” she said. “They trusted I wouldn’t put their child in something my own children wouldn’t wear.”

While Barber and Schoon had to learn the retail ropes on their own, Amanda Weiner was already a veteran of the shoe industry when she joined her family’s business, Saxon Shoes in Richmond, Va., a decade ago. Weiner, now 35, first frequented the store at the age of 8. Now she serves as special projects coordinator for the 2-store chain.

Weiner’s grandmother Gloria Weiner Adams, — who co-founded the store in 1953 with husband Jack Weiner — lured her into the business. “One of the things I hear from so many people, is that Gloria could find the perfect shoe for everyone,” said Weiner, who’s picked up her late grandmother’s know-how on the selling floor. ”There was no one more of a powerhouse in the industry than her.”

Since the store caters to men and women, Weiner has honed her sales skills to cater to both genders. “When I have a [female] customer, it’s very easy to relate to them,” she said. “It’s about what works well for me, how I wear clothes, how I style things. Then, when it comes to the men’s department, it’s very easy for me to say to customers, I’d love to see my boyfriend wearing these shoes, or those [styles] are so fashionable right now, I bet your wife would love them.”

Although Weiner has been in the business for decades, it was the COVID-19 crisis that helped her set the store on a new path. Since customers were unable to visit the store, she launched a Facebook Live series introducing them to new products. “It’s so much more personal than on a website,” she said, giving her the opportunity to explain a shoe’s features as well as offer styling tips. “We’ve had pretty good success over the past several months. It’s allowed us to keep the needle moving when we’ve been closed.”

Due to the popularity of the initiative, which allows shoppers to message, call or email with comments or questions about a shoe, then order by phone or email for at-home delivery or curbside pick-up, Weiner is continuing the initiative even as Saxon Shoes reopens its doors.

Today, the third-generation retailer continues to carve her own niche in the business — working alongside her father Gary Weiner, CEO and president, and mother Beth Weiner, who oversees human resources and billing.

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